To say that American policy in the Middle East is in disarray would be a huge understatement of fact. While it may be easy to point the finger at Bush and Iraq, consider this fact: the Iraq War, according to Iraq Body Count, resulted in 244,000 deaths, about 150,000 of them civilians. By contrast, the Syrian civil war has resulted in over 250,000 civilian deaths. Over 10 million have been displaced placing pressure on neighboring Jordan and Turkey. Europe is being overrun with a transformational refugee population. In Iraq, Hussein was deposed at least; Assad remains in power in Syria.
Much of this stems from Obama’s misguided outreach to the Muslim world and his 2009 Cairo speech. The underlying philosophy of that speech is based on three faulty assumptions: (1) that close ties with Israel has cost us Arab allies, (2) that if we distance ourselves from Israel we can curry Arab favors, and (3) solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem will cure the problems of the region. In reality, standing by Israel has cost us nothing while turning our backs on Israel at times have achieved no goals with the Arab countries. The best chance for resolving a Palestinian homeland occurred at Camp David in 2000, but Arafat’s intransigence ended that. In reality, other than using it as an excuse, the Arab world cares little about the Palestinians.
Getting over and beyond these faulty assumptions is step one in correcting what passes as a foreign policy. The reason is simple: Syria is the flash point in the region right now and they share a border with Israel. ISIS will not be content with just toppling Assad and marching into Damascus with black flags waving. Their goal after Syria and Iraq is Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon.
Obama’s policy is long on rhetoric and empty promises, gross miscalculations (Libya, Egypt) and reversals (pulling troops from Iraq and allowing the “JV” ISIS to form). It is based on a mindset of how the Muslim world should be, not the reality of what the Muslim world is and has been since about the year 700 AD. The coup de grace in this policy was the Iran deal which opened the financial gates for greater Iranian influence in the region.
If that wasn’t bad enough, his “policy” allowed for something else. About 45 years ago, Kissinger finally kicked the Russians out of the region. In six short years, Obama’s lack of a coherent policy has invited them back in since a power vacuum now exists.
Realizing that American influence and prestige in the region is at an all-time low, Putin and Russia were more than willing to take a bold step. That is because Putin is not a risk-averse constitutional law scholar whose claim to fame is a couple of years in the Senate and writing a book about his upbringing. So it made perfect sense for him to move in Syria at this time.
Putin is aware that come January 2017 he will no longer be dealing with the weak and inept Barack Obama. This move has been in the making for a while now. He has offered to relieve Austrian peace keeping forces in the Golan Heights, forged a close relationship with Iran and entered into a $4.2 billion arms deal with Iraq. The only thing that held back earlier intervention was his dalliance in the Ukraine.
There is one primary goal- to aid and assist Assad, not necessarily destroy ISIS first although he uses that as justification. He knows there is a lack of resolve in the west and that American options are limited. If there are to be repercussions, they will be manageable and late after his goals are achieved. This writer has no doubt that destroying or weakening ISIS is a part of those goals. After all, close to 10% of ISIS forces originate from former Soviet states. Their return poses a great risk to Russia and it is better to fight and kill them in Syria.
If he succeeds- and Obama is counting on him not succeeding and getting into a “quagmire-” then he has everything to gain. If he does not succeed, however, he has nothing to lose. Putin has learned from Soviet mistakes in Afghanistan and will not repeat them and get into a quagmire.
The overall Russian goals are:
- Sustain the Moscow-friendly regime of Assad first;
- At least weaken and disrupt the ISIS terrorist infrastructure in Syria;
- Prove that Russia can project it’s military might away from the homeland;
- Provide a proving ground for Russian military hardware which has been dramatically modernized under his watch, and;
- Deflect attention off the Ukraine and his ambitions in Europe.
By keeping the bar low and having an actual strategy and it is a low-risk strategy. The timing and speed of the Russian military action in Syria also shows their resolve and his disdain for Obama’s weakness. Less than 48 hours after shaking Obama’s hand in New York City, Russian fighter jets were flying their first missions over Syria. His first targets were not ISIS, but the Syrian “allies” of the US which makes it obvious that his first goal is to prop up Assad. In fact, Syrian troops moved quickly in an offensive against American-backed rebels, not ISIS.
Once the rebels are out of the way, the next moves become obvious- ISIS. Since Assad and ISIS will be the only two major players left in Syria, Putin can make a case that Assad is the lesser of the two evils left standing and force Obama into the ultimate humiliation- accepting the regime of Assad.
Putin is a better observer of the world because he was a Cold warrior in the KGB, not an author and sometimes college professor. He looked about and saw that the training of Syrian rebels was a half-hearted effort about three years too late to be effective. He saw Obama’s dismissive attitudes toward the Syrian rebels. He saw red lines fade into pink polka-dots. He saw American rhetoric outrunning American action for over four years in the region and an American president with no stomach to do anything. In short, he saw weakness and he exploited it.
Putin sees the Middle East in blacks and whites and despite the mess that is Syria and the region, it is simple: there are bad guys and there are worse bad guys. While we turn our back on the only real good guys over there (Israel), Putin chooses the lesser of two evils because a lot of that worse evil will eventually return home and threaten Russia. Obama sees Syria and the Middle East in a rainbow of colors and observes them to death, has meeting upon meeting, and shows strategic patience. This administration is good as making up words and phrases (just what the hell is “deconfliction?”) and “strategic patience” is just another phrase for doing nothing and surrendering. But when you have a president that believes climate change is the biggest national security threat the country faces, could we expect any better?